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To Be Thankful, or Not to Be Thankful for Thanksgiving — That Is the Question

For most American Jews, Thanksgiving is a no-brainer. You get together with family, you eat — what’s not to like?

Well, it turns out, Rabbi Jill Jacobs — who writes consistently thoughtful posts for Jewish Funds for Justice’s blog JSpot — is no fan of the holiday. But unlike some ultra-Orthodox Jews (see this article for a summary of the debate over whether Thanksgiving is asur, or forbidden), Jacobs’s reservations are of a less particularistic bent:

My problem is not that I think the holiday is asur, or even that I think that the sins of the Pilgrims overshadow any future attempts to find meaning in Thanksgiving. Rather, I find Thanksgiving to represent some of the blandest parts of American life. Thanksgiving has almost as many rituals as some Jewish holidays–there’s the Turkey carving (tofurkey in my house), the ritual foods, the football game, and perhaps the quick round of “What are you thankful for?” And then, the next day, there’s the shopping.

With the possible exception of butternut squash and pecan pie, none of these are rituals that I’m eager to incorporate into my sense of what it means to be an American Jew. I am proud to be an American because of the (sometime) history of democracy, opening our doors to immigrants, and pursuing equality for all. I wish that we honored this tradition by spending Thanksgiving protesting unjust policies and working toward just ones. I even wish that we spent Thanksgiving telling our own immigration stories, grappling with the complications of American history, and thinking about how we want to act in the future. (Yes–I know that AJC puts out an interfaith Thanksgiving haggadah to this effect, but I haven’t heard that the holiday has drastically changed as a result).

Instead, we get a holiday that’s about stuffing ourselves, watching large & overpaid men jump all over each other (probably while women fans are encouraged to flash their breasts), and preparing to max out our credit cards yet again. (many people also spend time on Thanksgiving volunteering at a local soup kitchen, but–of course–these noble efforts do little to stop the growing incidence of hunger in our wealthy nation.) Other than (tofu) Turkey replacing (veggie) burgers, Thanksgiving is little different from July 4, Memorial Day, Labor Day, or any of the other holidays that have lost any real meaning and have just become one more excuse for gluttony and worship of the gods of commercialism.

I’m proud to be an American Jew. But I’ll take mine without the cranberry sauce.

While some of her critique rings true, I think her decision to give up on Thanksgiving is the wrong one. Just because most people tend to forget that Chanukah is about the Maccabees and that Memorial Day honors those who made the ultimate sacrifice doesn’t mean we should stop observing these holidays. Instead, we should try to observe them the right way.

Thanksgiving, for its part, is certainly rich with meaning. For believers and non-believers alike, it’s an opportunity to give thanks for our many blessings. For the more religiously disposed patriots among us, it reminds us of God’s Providence at the dawn of our nation’s history. And while there is no shortage of things to be ashamed of when it comes to the European encounter with the New World’s inhabitants, Thanksgiving is about cooperation not conquest, pointing to a better world that could have been. Finally, of course, there’s the tie-in to religious freedom, an American tradition that’s served us all well.

In many ways, Thanksgiving has the potential to be for Americans what Passover is for Jews. While Passover is the origin story of the Jewish people, Thanksgiving brings us back to the beginnings of America. And just as Passover is the most widely observed of Jewish holidays, marked even by the most resolutely secular among us, Thanksgiving is enthusiastically embraced by Americans of (almost) all religious and ethnic backgrounds. It is a day of national unity. Perhaps these similarities are why, as Jacobs notes, the American Jewish Committee created a “Haggadah” — her word, I think — for the Thanksgiving holiday. (And, I must confess, I personally have been known to break kashrut on the holiday in order to partake of non-kosher turkey at friends’ houses, since I see the Thanksgiving bird as an American sacrament.)

So c’mon Jill Jacobs, don’t give up on Thanksgiving. Instead, lend your passion and eloquence to the important project of reclaiming the holiday’s deeper meaning. What do you have to lose? The worst thing that could happen is you’d end up eating a few too many slices of Pecan pie.

Chag sameach!

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